Friday, July 29, 2016

When Our Leaders Want to "beat people up," You know we Haven't come Far. . . .

Today, perhaps unsurprisingly, Donald Trump went on another one of his almost daily rants. This time he actively advocated violence, saying he wanted to "hit" several of the DNC convention speakers "so hard their heads would spin." (You can see a story in the Huffington Post here)

Personally I am entirely dumfounded by the idea of a presidential candidate in the 21st century who openly talks this way. And not only does he talk this way but his supporters lap it up. The irony of a guy who a few days ago tried to position himself as the "law and order candidate" talking openly about using violence on his opponents is too rich to make up. Comedians and Hollywood screenwriters must just be beside themselves at the professional goldmine that this man provides on an almost daily basis. But a good swath of Americans must surely be irony impaired, because they just aren't getting it. But oligarchs, dictators, and so-called 'strong-armed' leaders have always been this way. They talk about law and order but what they really mean is silence and obedience. Or Else!

In the words of one of my very favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."

By way of contrast, I was thinking today about the most popular and, arguably, the most left-leaning president the US has ever seen: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Like any man, he had his faults. But when you contrast him with Donald Trump he seems almost saint-like. FDR was barely able to walk as a result of polio. And he went to great lengths to hide his disability from the public, a task that was conceivable in the age before television. Hiding his disability was understandable in those days. Even today, it is difficult to imagine a person with a significant disability getting elected president. But I suspect that FDR's disability is, in part, what made him the compassionate and socially conscious leader that he was.

One of the only photos of FDR in a wheelchair.

Trump lives in a world where men are still judged, by many, by their level of masculinity. His supporters, both men and women, like to hear him threaten people with violence because, in their eyes, it makes him manly and a good leader. Trump's popularity demonstrates how little we've really progressed in the past century.

The measure of person should never relate to how loud they speak, how angry they can get, how intimidating they can be. Physical courage can, indeed, be a useful trait. But without a conscience it easily becomes ruthlessness. Lincoln said, "No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child." How is it that the first Republican president knew this lesson more than a hundred and fifty years ago, but the current Republican nominee has forgotten it entirely?

For some people, great leaders are people who have fought wars,  or did "what they said they would do" (no matter how terrible that act might be). But for those of us who actually want to move into the 21st century, great leaders must be defined by their compassion and their empathy. We know how Trump will be judged on this scale.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid, but for all the wrong reasons.. . .

The Republican National Convention is in full swing and this week's theme appears to be fear. The Grand Old Party ('old' being the operative word here) seems to be channelling the past, harking back to a time when American was mostly white and much of that population was feeling the first real tremors of a changing America. They were scared, and fear, as my dad used to say, makes people stupid.

The face of the Republican party in those days was Richard Nixon, a politician whose savvy and sly abilities existed in equal measure to his corrupt and evil proclivities. Nixon knew that much of mainstream, white America was afraid, and he used it to propel himself to the office of president. The strategy of fear is hardly a new one for the rightwing, but there seems to be times of anxiety-ridden unrest that make it an better, more effective approach than others. With the Vietnam War heating up, the younger generation everywhere in cultural revolt, race-riots bringing violence to the streets of America, it is hardly any wonder that Nixon was able to capitalize on fear.

Cut to modern day Cleveland where the Republicans have once again made fear of chaos the cornerstone of their political raison d'être. Trevor Noah caught the mood beautifully in his Daily Show segment. (It seems that you need an American VPN to watch it but if you have one you can see it here.)

The BBC gives us a glimpse into the fear in a report from yesterday.

Maybe there is not more to be afraid of in 1968 than there is today, but for mainstream white America, whose hold on society has never been more tenuous, the new fears are perhaps more unsettling than the old ones. After all, white Americans are fast being outnumbered by non-whites, America's economic supremacy is quickly disappearing, wages have flatlined for years, and secure, well-paying employment is a thing of the past. For Republicans, someone must be to blame for this state of affairs, and the rightwing mind always looks to the "other" when things look rough.

Four years ago when the Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, the more astute Republican commentators said that the Grand Old Party was doomed unless it could begin to appeal to people outside it normal purview, to blacks and hispanics, to more women and younger people. Four years later, the Republican Party seems to have decided on the opposite tack; instead they are everywhere intentionally alienating those that four years ago they realized they needed to appeal to. As I said, fear makes people stupid.

It seems that nothing will divert Republicans from their chosen path. To chose a new way forward requires a change of heart or a cool and collected mind. It seems that the Republican Party is not going to embrace either of these.

When people are afraid, it is often for the wrong reasons; they are afraid of the wrong things. There is much to fear in today's world. But Republicans are mostly afraid of people with darker skin and people who don't look or think exactly like them. But if we learn anything from history it is that we learn nothing from history. It is hard to say if the Republican campaign of fear will take Trump to power the way it did for Nixon. I suspect that if Trump were to win, fear in the rest of the world, fear of what he would do,  would make white, American fear look like a walk in the park.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump's plagiarism and Ersatz politics . . .

Is anyone surprised at Melania Trump's plagiarism of a Michelle Obama's speech?

It was a painful speech to watch. Besides Melania's strange, eerie, almost robotic manner, everything she said seemed forced and empty. Let's not forget that Michelle Obama is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University and, of course, Harvard Law School. She is also a life-long activist, starting notably with her involvement in the Carl A. Fields Center at Princeton. To hear Melania Trump steal Obama's speech is pure farce. Melania Trump, on the other hand, is a model who dropped out of her first year of college who represents little but ostentatious wealth, a wealth that she has because of her marriage to a mean-spirited, racist whose only activism is the effort to make himself richer and more powerful.

To be fair, I suspect that Melania Trump is not directly responsible for the plagiarism of Obama's speech. Mrs. Trump is probably not bright enough to even be aware of Obama's words, let alone steal them. It was probably one of the speech writers who, like some college freshman, thought by changing a word or two here and there he/she would technically not be guilty of plagiarism.

But putting the words of an accomplished woman like Michelle Obama into the mouth of a rich, awkward woman like Melania Trump, is indicative of the entire Trump phenomenon. The Trumps are an empty mockery of everything we should value. There is no content here, only a vacuous self-aggrandizement, a kind of ersatz politics which attempts to take rhetoric devoid of real meaning and turn it into an empty political victory without real goals. It is like something out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Trump is like Elmer Gantry without the style, craftiness, or charisma.

People without insights of their own are compelled to steal the thoughts of others. And if your only goal is to make yourself richer and/or more powerful then the only content and meaning of your words is the raw ambition which motivates them.

There is no question of plagiarism here; it is too blatant and obvious and is there for everyone to see. It makes sense though. If you are not that smart yourself, if you have no actual accomplishments to build upon, it makes sense to pattern yourself on someone who has the smarts and/or the dedication to actually do something.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Turkey's attack on Democracy is Our problem too. . . .

President Recep Erdogan is arguably the greatest charlatan in European politics at the moment. He is a man who actively courts an image as a populist democrat while he simultaneously makes every attempt to shut down all opposition and carve out for himself a role as absolute dictator of Turkey. From afar Erdogan's attempts can seem almost comical, as when he lobbies foreign governments to indict their own citizens for criticizing him, but at home his strong-arm tactics are frighteningly real for those who chose to dissent from his vision of Turkey.

Of course, as one might expect with any politician who takes advantage of a populist style of public image making, what exactly Erdogan's national vision is is not entirely clear. On the one hand, Erdogan has built an image as an Islamist leader (as described by the New York Times), but on the other hand he has continued the effort among Turkey's recent leaders to bring Turkey into "modern" political mainstream and make the country eligible for membership in the European Union.

The value of EU membership has recently lost a great deal of its cache, which is probably good for Erdogan who seems to have no intention of backing off his rather desperate efforts to become Turkey's dictator. One of Erdogan's draconian responses to the weekend coup attempt in Turkey has been to publicly float the idea of reinstating the death penalty. This brought a swift response from at least one EU member-state as a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Turkey chance of gaining EU membership would be finished if it returned to using the death penalty. As the Mail Online said today, "Steffen Seibert told reporters that the EU is a 'community of values,' therefore the institution of the death penalty can only mean that such a country could not be a member."

However, it really appears that capital punishment is only one of many problems now faced by Turkey in its effort to be a modern, Western-approved, democracy. Erdogan has taken advantage of the attempted coup to enact a round-up of hundreds (if not thousands) of people in what he claims is a crackdown on the supporters of the coup, but which, given the raw numbers and generalized targets of the arrests, can only be an attempt to undermine all opposition to his leadership. If one needs a primer on how to marginalize and debilitate political opposition on the road to dictatorship, one only needs to look at what has been happening in Turkey in the past forty-eight hours: use a real event as a smokescreen for the total liquidation of dissent. It is a classic tactic with which even those with only a casual knowledge history will be familiar. And it is a tactic which Erdogan's supporters are whole-heartedly embracing. As Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu wrote in the New York Times: "While secular and liberal Turks generally opposed the coup, it was Mr. Erdogan's supporters who flooded the streets and gathered at Istanbul's airport to push out the occupying army. They mostly yelled religious slogans and chants in support of Mr. Erdogan, not of democracy itself." They go on to make it clear that Erdogan's support of free political expression is extremely one sided. "When other groups, like gay and lesbian organizations or labor unions try to gather in public spaces in central Istanbul," Argano and Yeginsu write, "the streets are sealed off. Armoured vehicles with water cannons suddenly materialize, as do police officers with tear gas canisters."

The story is an old one but the implications are ominous as governments everywhere seem to be using the force of the state to shut down opposition and curtail democratic rights. Turkey after the coup will undoubtably be a less free and more draconian state. But citizens of Western nations should not feel comfortable nor satisfied that Turkey's troubles are distant from us. Democratic rights are everywhere under fire and Republican convention in Cleveland this week should remind us that Erdogan's tactics are by no means a 'foreign' or an 'Islamic' phenomenon.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The American Tipping Point. . . .

I grew up in the States in the turbulent times of the 1960s and early 70s. As a young child I lived in Detroit during the infamous riots there. My family also lived in LA during the Watts riots. Major race riots seem to break out in the US ever twenty years or so. And politicians and activists talk about how important it is to change things, and after the furor dies down nothing seems to change.

Actually, strike that. Looking at what is going on in the US this week, I realize that what has changed is that the police are now more like a paramiltary strike-force than a civilian police force. Take a look at video of protests in Baton Rouge and you can see just how much things have changed. You can find some video at the facebook page of Revolution News here. But this video is even more frightening.

This video lays bare all the hypocrisy of US politicians who are talking about peace and reconciliation. Talk of change, talk of peace, talk of community cooperation is utterly empty while you are using paramilitary forces in the face of peaceful protests! Putting armoured vehicles in communities flanked by military men armed in many cases with assault rifles is a demonstration of the very things against which people are protesting, and will lead to nothing good. There is a terrible and painful irony in the fact that in the face of state violence which is out of control (in the continual killing and violence against blacks), the state's response is to double down and ramp up the very image and nature of the violence. 

One needn't be an expert in political history to understand that this is a "third-world" response. I lived in El Salvador during the 90s just after the civil war there ended. I heard so many stories from regular people who hadn't been active or political but eventually became so as the State's response to protests became more and more violent. This is exactly what is happening the US today. When the state makes it clear that their agenda is military and violent, people who might otherwise watch from afar will understandably begin to question the real goals of the state. Not only has the US government ramped up the violence with their response but they have set in motion an inevitable legitimation crisis in the country as a whole. And sadly, they have also established a precedent that will further divide the country in an already divisive time. 

Looking back on the periodical racial tensions that have divided America over the past century, it seems that this is not just another blip on the screen of American racial problems. Rather, this is finally the moment when the paramilitary nature of the US state has been laid bare and the descent of the most powerful nation in the world into the chaos of a banana-republic-style dictatorship. 

This is, as they say, the tipping point. America and Americans will never be the same. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Etiquette and Online abuse. . .

There is little doubt that as society has "progressed" notions of etiquette and manners have become considerably more lax. Of course, there are still some conventions that people adhere to in social situations, but for the most part these have become so flexible that one could probably no longer write a "rule book" of etiquette except where these rule might apply to the most formal of situations.

It is often repeated that the etiquette of the past was overly restrictive and undoubtedly sexist as it applied considerably harsher rules to women than it did to men. This view of our former rules of manners and etiquette is undoubtably true. Take a look at this entertaining video on Victorian etiquette.

I am sure we are all glad that most of these rules no longer apply to our social lives. However, as constricting as these rules seem, there is a background of conventions concerning manners that seem even to a contemporary reader to be admirable. For example, on this website concerning Victorian etiquette, the basic rules of proper manners seems largely reasonable. This advice includes such simple themes as "learn to govern yourself and be gentle and patient," "never speak or act in anger," "remember that, valuable as is the gift of speech, silence is often more valuable," and "do not neglect little things if they can affect the comfort of others." These little pieces of advice seem to me to be invaluable and I wish that I could have learned to apply them earlier in life.

It seems to me that not only do people fail to undertake some very basic rules of manners and etiquette that could make everyone's life healthier and happier, but that modern technology is eating away at people's manners in a way that will, over the long term, be highly destructive. One only needs to read the comment section on any website to understand how easily some people succumb to their rudest and most violent instincts. I realized just how bad it had gotten the other day when I engaged in a brief Facebook conversation and no manner how calmly and reasonably I presented my position, other people hurled insults at me, sidestepped the real issues, and ignored any rational discourse. One of the most basic elements in Gandhi's social philosophy was that if you act calmly and rationally, and you refuse to fight or get angry, your actions will unwittingly foster respect in others, respect that will make it more difficult for others to be abusive and violent. And I have found that in interpersonal situations this is often true. Not so much online. Being online is a bit like driving a car - it makes a lot of people feel powerful and invulnerable. So people will go on and on about things they know little about and they will be ever ready to insult and abuse anyone who disagrees with them.

This online nastiness is a phenomenon which has already been widely commented on. However, what I find troubling is the idea that a whole generation of young people are growing up with a violent online persona and I can't help thinking that this will have to impact their offline behavior as they grow up. If young people's first response to discursive disagreement online is disrespectful, presumptuous, and abusive, this is bound to overflow into their everyday lives at some point. This is a rather ominous tendency.

In my formative years of political and philosophical development, I tried very hard to utilize the expertise of people more knowledgable and experienced than I to gain the wisdom that I lacked. Of course my interactions were not always perfect and respectful by any means, but I very consciously tried to discuss and talk rather than simply assert and yell. This was not always easy but I really tried because, at the very least, I had the humility to know that I didn't know everything and I wanted to learn and I wanted to feel that I was intellectually growing.

As I said, I too have succumbed at times to my worst impulses, both on and offline. But I continue to work to be more discursive and respectful. But as etiquette and manners become more lax, I can't help but wonder if the next generation will be mindful of this important part of interpersonal growth.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Sad State of US Race Relations. . .

When I was kid I lived in Santa Monica, California, and I spent a lot of my time on the beach and the pier doing what kids are supposed to do: having fun and not thinking about the troubles in the world. The Vietnam War was raging, there was trouble at home and abroad, but even though I was aware of the turmoil, as a kid you just get on with your life.

One afternoon when I was at the base of Santa Monica pier with my childhood friend eating a hotdog, a man came running down the boardwalk in obvious distress, clutching his belly which was bleeding from a wound. He was a black man in his late twenties, obviously afraid and in pain. He ran off through the crowd toward Venice Beach. A few moments later two white men came running down the planks, one holding a bloodied knife in his hand, and they ran off after the injured man who was obviously the victim of their violence.

At the time I didn't think of the event in racial terms. Though LA had significant racial problems (only a few years perviously, the neighborhood of Watts had exploded into riots in which nearly three dozen people had been killed), but Santa Monica wasn't exactly a hotbed of troubles or racial diversity. And this stabbing probably wasn't, in fact, racially motivated but was more likely just a typical act of criminal violence. But as time went by, that terrible moment came to signify or symbolize for me the racial tensions that so significantly mark the United States.

The unfortunate truth is that the US has been engaged in a kind of race war since its inception as a country. I hesitate to use the phrase 'race war' because it is provocative and troubling. But given the long history of conflict, it is a difficult phrase to avoid. The US is a country that was founded on large part on slavery, which is a profoundly violent institution. Historically much of the slave trade has, in fact, been a by product of war as one country made slaves of the captured victims of their opponent. But the violence in American race relations certainly didn't stop with the surrender at Appomattox. The Jim Crow laws legalized the second-class status of blacks in much of the US, violence against blacks was a regular feature of US life, and the legal system did very little to protect blacks from violence and discrimination. In my own lifetime the drug trade that has done so much damage to blacks in America was partly a result of US activity in Indochina, and according to John Ehrlichman,  Nixon specifically used the so-called "war on drugs" to specifically target the anti-war left and black Americans.

The recent shootings of black Americans by police is, of course, nothing new. Police in the US have always targeted blacks and black people have always been disproportionally treated and violated. But modern technology has allowed us to see this disproportionate treatment in a new light. It has become more difficult for police to sweep such incidents under the rug and behind the blue line of silence. So while blacks have always been the victims of such violence, people's ability to record events has laid bare the real nature of the violence and exacerbated an already tense situation. And rightly so. People need to be angry and they need to make noise and they need to protest. Sadly, violence begets violence and racial tensions can inevitably morph into something like a genuine race war. When a people are treated to decades (even centuries) of violence, and things don't seem to be getting any better, some people will inevitably strike out in the most extreme ways. This morning the CBC interviewed a black activist who was a former police sergeant in the US. He was genuinely shocked that people were surprised at what happened in Dallas last night. Given the history of race relations in the US, he was only surprised that it took this long for such an event to occur.

People are saying that the US is at a crossroads. This is probably true. However, it is difficult to see a way forward. The fact is that the events of the past few years has taught us that the US justice system is simply too corrupt or not prepared to deal with police violence in a serious way. Police are given more or less carte blanche to act whatever way they see fit and they will not be held to account. Black activists are pushing for civilian run police forces (a very good idea in my opinion) but the idea is getting no traction with the political establishment. Meanwhile the violence continues and nothing is being done.

For a couple of news cycles people will talk about the events in Dallas but it is hard to imagine it will have any effect other than making things worse. Police are going to be even more tense and nervous and surely more violence will be the result. This could lead to even more such events, and on and on we go. That is the problem with war and violence; it seems to take on a life of its own and we all suffer.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Globalizing misery. . . .

There is no doubt that many people are angry with the current state of politics and globalization. There was a time not that long ago when working people in Western nations were on the rise; union membership was high, economic equality was better than it had ever been, the tax system was relatively fair (targeting the rich and corporations at least to some degree), and, perhaps most importantly, people depended on the fact that their children would be better off than they had been. For the West, that dream began to unravel some time around 1970 with the end of the long, post-war boom and the rise of 'globalization.'

Whole libraries of books have been written on what happened. The rise of globalization was surely, in part, a inevitable result of technology. Within a capitalist context, technological advances meant that money and production became more mobile. The predictable result of this mobility was that capitalists were able to play to the lowest common denominator in terms of labour and environmental standards. Capitalists made a concerted effort to undermine working-class power everywhere by opening borders for the corporate search for profits.

The result of this globalizing effort was the impoverishment of people everywhere, not just those in the West nations. There is a perception among some (a perception intentionally fed by capitalists) that globalization has been a zero sum game, and that what is lost, say, in the industrial heartland of the US is gained in other countries like Mexico. This is largely false. Developing countries have gained surprisingly little from globalization. Work in so called maquiladoras creates a limited number of jobs, often very poor ones, and pays little to the home nation. Furthermore, globalization has had a concomitant process of urbanization. People have been taken off their land by various processes and those that had some degree of sovereignty and independence (as meager as that might have been) in rural work, have become part of a sea of urban workers with no measurable industrial skills and little to do but work at the behest of anyone that will employ them.

However one sees the process of globalization in relation to the so-called developing nations, one thing is certain, the power of the worker is disappearing, their incomes have stagnated, they have little pensionable income, they work in an increasingly precarious context and they see a very dark future. Meanwhile their politicians (both conservative and liberal) have done very little to improve the conditions of their populations. Instead, they keep selling the very agenda that brought us here in the first place: more corporate trade deals, more tax cuts for corporations and the rich, etc.

It is easy to see how presidential candidates like Sanders and Trump are making waves in a political structure that has atrophied and has become essentially a mouthpiece for the rich. The problem is, of course, that while Sanders promotes cooperation, unity, and an economy that serves everyone, people like Trump are preaching hate, division, and scapegoating. Meanwhile, in Britain, there were some people who voted to leave the EU because of its neo-liberal economic agenda, but it seems that their were many more who voted to leave because they blame outsiders for the decline in relative prosperity and the decline in economic equality.

Many people are angry with what the rich and powerful have done with globalization. This is understandable. The tragedy is that most people don't even blame the rich and seem to be painfully unaware that the fault of their stagnating wages and grim futures lies with conscious and concerted efforts of people like Trump and Boris Johnson, people who have no interest in making things better for average workers, but only seek to enrich themselves.